by Stefan Becker
Experience of Space. Perception of Urban Settings with the Body Apparatus and Cultural Techniques as Creative Event of Thinking, Atmosphere and Society
1. What is called Thinking?
When we talk about the concept of space, we are generally concerned with a specific (and most of the time personal) notion of space that we want to communicate. Using words like city or street, landscape, infrastructure, environment or the room and house that we live in – we give descriptions and create images of places in our minds that are utopias at the same time. Because there are not real. Nothing is real. We try to convey something that is located in our imagination. In our memory, in our thinking.
Thinking is the essential foundation of our perception of being, our construction of reality and our social behaviour and as such one of the core conditions for our existence. It is an internal process occurring in our brains that helps us form our self by creating an identity – essentially it is our ability to think that makes us human beings.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger describes it in the following way:
“Yet man is called the being who can think, and rightly so. Man is the rational animal. Reason, ‘ratio’, evolves in thinking.”
Thinking is the biological process that gives the human being its definition. Consequently, various questions arise: What actually is thinking? How is it achieved? And what kinds of actors are constitutional?
Concerning these issues, Heidegger refers in his writing “What is called Thinking?” in particular to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the concept of thinking as a path.
With this imagery, his writings are located among a philosophical mindset found in the works of Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau and Kant, as well as Thoreau and Rimbaud, to name only a few. Here, knowledge (in German: Erkenntnis), as the highest good of thinking, evolves, following the concept of reformation which is directly based on the biblical paradigm of the pilgrimage and the notion of enlightenment.
Walking and thinking establish an interaction, if you want, a symbiosis, that the self perceives as an experience of reality, consciously and subconsciously at the same time.
First of all, the human being is a biological machine that is based on the principle of the autopoiesis and therefore has a limited lifetime. Principally, it is equipped with a bipedal movement competence, with two prehensile, multi-fingered organs, a perception consisting of five senses and a centralised neural system that converges in the brain.
I would like to point out that each single perception, just like every moment in our life, is a singular and unique event. With the distinct feature that we can experience the eventful singularity of our own self in this world, when we put one foot in front of the other – when we are able to observe our self, or what we call the self, during the process of walking and being.
Rebecca Solnit, an American cultural historian, wrote:
“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
In this interpretation, the momentum of „walking“ resembles a trance-like state, during which the human being, in his all-embracing essentiality becomes an integral part of the world and its eternity. Heiddegger describes this state of mind as the „In-der-Welt-sein“, as „Being-in-the world“.
According to Solnit, this established harmony of the components Body, Thinking and World allows for an embedding of the perception of being in the divinity, potentially creating moments of meaningfulness. Or in other words: Walking releases Thinking.
Let us remember Heidegger and his statement about the human being who defines himself by his ratio, as the rational animal. Man is embedded in the middle of a world which is constructed by himself, as Schopenhauer wrote: „The world is my idea.“ There is no reality, there is no tree, no river, no mountain. Everything is just my or your idea.
Therefore, Heidegger concluded: “To think is to form ideas”. The human being in his rationality is a creator of ideas that are produced in his brains, with immediate influence on his physical and neural behaviour. And reciprocal. Just as the human being walks, his thinking is triggered off.
And if the human doesn’t trust this symbiosis, he will maybe lose himself. Quotation of a young Tibetan monk during a hike of a steep mountain trail:
“If you think you fall, you fall.”
2. Moving in Space and Thinking
The human body with its two feet is a vehicle. It moves in the world. Space and human are invariably connected. They are influencing each other at all times. The human achieves its thinking through the perception of space. By means of various photographies and projections I would now like to impart visual notions of space which shall hopefully expand our own thinking and challenge the implicitness of our perceptions. Imagine to have grown up with in the upcoming environments, to have dwelled (in German: „wohnen“) inside the following „imaginations“. In what way might your thinking be different to what it is now? How would you perceive the world? Would you be a different person?
It would be best if I could walk with you through the various scenarios, to go on an actual expedition. Based on perceivable phenomenon, we could compose narratives by using our cultural techniques of expression and inscription.
But for now, I’m afraid, you will just have to follow my visual and narrative suggestions.
Illustrations I: Line
I would like to start with some illustrations of architectural examples quite familiar for most of us. I call it linear, or in Foucault’s words „biopolitical“ in order that you know where the journey will lead us.
Obviously I show you these pictures because I want to call your attention to something in particular – geometrical forms. The line, the right angle, the visual axis. In addition to this terms as: system, order, structure, control, urban planning, technology, security, endurance, continuity. More concepts are to add.
Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects of Modernity, has published some manifests regarding social and aesthetic issues. These influenced among others the style of Bauhaus and the industrial architecture of the Quelle or AEG buildings where we are located right now.
He mentions in regards to moving in space:
“Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance. But man governs his feelings by his reason; he keeps his feelings and his instincts in check, subordinating them to the aim he has in view. He rules the brute creation by his intelligence. His intelligence formulates laws which are the product of experience. His experience is born of work; man works in order that he may not perish. In order that production may be possible, a line of conduct is essential, the laws of experience must be obeyed. Man must consider the result in advance.”
Illustrations II: Maze
As a contrast, now you will see some images of other geometrical forms where the paths are more maze-like.
The stairs and alleys of the favelas implicate a constantly diverted movement, compared to the straight and accelerating streets and highways. Not only is there less speed, but there is also no linear direction. The niches and zigzags imply movements more labyrinthine or mazy than actually directed towards a destination. There are various ways to various places, whereby the purpose of a place changes or is redetermined through experiences and their affects during the process of going.
In Brazil, where these pictures have been taken, some academic research is devoted to the analysis of the linear and the mazy universes of society.
I would like to quote from one study:
“The streets and alleys are almost always narrow and crooked, which intensifies the labyrinthine impression and results in an intense physical closeness and a strong mixing of people. To walk up the hill for instance means to experience a unique sense of place, from the first climb you notice a different walking rhythm, a sensual swinging of the hips that the ascent requires. Moving through the favela, you see children dancing the Samba in this space even before they can walk properly, and on the hill it hardly ever happens that you walk straight – you cannot help but thinking of Le Corbusier’s famous quote about the paths of people and donkeys: ‘man walks in a straight line / … / the pack-donkey meanders along / … /’.”
3. Thinking in Space
The mode of thinking and forming ideas is something we learn.
Humans undergo processes of socialisation when they are younger – something they will only remember vaguely as an adult. The most important achievements humans will accomplish as children is the acquisition of speaking and walking. Both is generated by means of imitation – in fact, through the upbringing by and the submission to a specific role model. Walking and Speaking are therefore no individual inventions but biopolitical and disciplinary actions of the body – or in other words: techniques of the body, as described by Marcel Mauss in regard to walking:
“A kind of revelation came to me in hospital. I was ill in New York. I wondered where previously I had seen girls walking as my nurses walked. I had the time to think about it. At last I realised that it was at the cinema. Returning to France, I noticed how common this gait was, especially in Paris; the girls were French and they too were walking in this way. In fact, American walking fashions had begun to arrive over here, thanks to the cinema. This was an idea I could generalise. The positions of the arms and hands while walking form a social idiosyncrasy, they are not simply a product of some purely individual, almost completely psychical arrangements and mechanisms. For example: I think I can also recognise a girl who has been raised in a convent. In general she will walk with her fists closed. And I can still remember my third- form teacher shouting at me: ‘Idiot! Why do you walk around the whole time with your hands flapping wide open?’ Means, there exists an education in walking, too.”
A certain technique of the body is always connected to a concept and a term of action. Like a handstand, a style of swimming or the way we hold our cutlery. All these techniques are generated by imitation, here as well consciously and subconsciously at the same time.
This leads me to a second perspective in regards to thinking – a more individual construction of forming ideas.
Gaston Bachelard tries in his book “The Poetics of Space” to open new perspectives on the formation of the individual mind. He sees himself as a “faithful philosopher of science who tried for a long time to consider literary images without attempting personal interpretation. Little by little, as he says, this method, which has scientific prudence in its favour, seemed to be an insufficient basis for his definition of the metaphysics of imagination.” Or the forming of ideas, so to say. Thinking is therefore something which is connected to concepts of soul (Seele) or mind (Geist), something, which meanders between reverie and dreaming. He pursues the singularities of socialisation within a singular space connected to childhood – the house. It contains the space of reverie (daydreaming, in German “Träumerei) that is constitutional for the poetical perception of the environment and even of the self.
“Our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty. […] If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. […] In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word habit is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house.”
The house as introduced here should serve as the paradigm of a microcosm. The narratives about inner places are linked to reflexions of the author, and point out HIS imaginations and HIS way of thinking. This gives us the opportunity to concentrate on alternative individual biographies of places and to ask how certain places coin human thinking.
It is exactly these spaces that Heidegger reflects on, as for him, without thinking there is no space. And also no utopias.
“When we speak of man and space, it sounds as though man stood on one side, space on the other. Yet space is not something that faces man. It is neither an external object nor an inner experience. It is not that there a men, and over and above them space.” […]
Spaces open up by the fact that they are let into the thinking of man, through perception. Not the human being dwells in space, the space dwells in the human being. And the space reaches our brains if the human walks in it. These accumulations of space (or let’s say: impressions of space) form the imaginations and the thinking of the human being.
How would our ideas and thinking differ, if we had not been socialised in a house but instead in a tent, on a tree or in a permanent movement in space, changing places without a fixed location?
Illustrations III: Rhizome
This leads me to the next part of my visual examples:
The kind of movement inside and between these places is something what the built infrastructure makes with us. Furthermore, the observer can perceive what the architecture represents. What is there today doesn’t has to be tomorrow. Continuous changes, conversions, connexions, transformations can be perceived here. Architecture is a Rhizome in the Deleuzian understanding, an event – not because tomorrow everything will be different but because everything can be different.
And because everything can be connected with everything, in the process of the becoming as well as in the pluralities of the perspectives on this process. It is essential HOW the observer localises and imagines these connections, or the network, and what perspectives and ideas he forms. And maybe doesn’t form. Or doesn’t want to form. Quotation Deleuze:
„Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. On the contrary, not every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a architectural (linguistic) feature: semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status. Collective assemblages of expressions function directly within machinic assemblages; it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects. Even when Architecture (linguistics) claims to confine itself to what is explicit and to make no presuppositions about space (language), it is still in the sphere of a discourse implying particular modes of assemblage and types of social power.“
Illustrations IV: Sublime
Thinking is liminal, something that is happening to us in the „in between“. With the intention to highlight the relevance of walking, I like to invoke the Sublime.
If we walk through a space we create it. Inside ourselves, through all our perceptions and emotions. Emotions that are hard to escape in a certain atmosphere as we are inevitably drawn into the aura of the space. Wherever we cast a glance, wherever our body moves to, our mind is moving too, and images, feelings, ideas and concepts almost automatically arise and form our thinking.
This becomes particularly evident when the highest human emotions blend, when pain and pleasure overlap and merge, as Edmund Burke wrote:
„The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended […]. “
This concept of astonishment Burke refers to, is only available to individuals that perceive the surrounding world and events by moving through them. It can solely be achieved by those who enter the realm of the sublime through walking.
The conclusion is concise:
So in the end utopias are created within our imagination, in the liminality between space and place. Once we express and communicate our thoughts and ideas evolving in those spaces, different places are created that will then once again trigger off new and innovative imaginations, thinking and utopias …
Photographs: Stefan Becker und Eva-Maria Hugo